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Scott Smallwood: Why Did the Ward Churchill Controversy Break Now When He Made the Comment Years Ago?

Scott Smallwood, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2-10-05):

Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Ward Churchill compared the victims to the Nazis. A professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he wrote in an essay that those killed at the World Trade Center were not innocent civilians but "little Eichmanns."

The analogy is so outrageous, one thinks, that surely he immediately got into trouble. Surely it prompted angry letters and calls for him to be fired. But it didn't.

Instead, for years the comparison just sat there quietly. Mr. Churchill, by contrast, rarely stays still. He has spoken on more than 40 college campuses since the 2001 attacks.

He traveled to elite liberal-arts colleges like Williams and Swarthmore, to big public universities like Arizona State and Michigan State, and to prestigious private universities like Brown and Syracuse. He spoke at community colleges in New York and Utah. Generally, he spoke about genocide and American Indian issues, but some speeches focused on foreign policy. Yet other than a brief mention in The Burlington Free Press during a December 2001 visit to the University of Vermont, the essay never made the news.

Then this winter, as he was about to speak at Hamilton College, the "little Eichmanns" time bomb went off, sparking hundreds of stories, denunciations of Mr. Churchill by governors and legislators, canceled speeches, and an investigation by Colorado administrators into his work that may threaten his tenured job.

So why now?

The answer lies in the power of Bill O'Reilly, Weblogs, and the families of September 11 victims. But before all that, the seeds of this controversy were sown not with Nazi references in an online essay but with a 1981 armored-car robbery that Mr. Churchill had nothing to do with.

On October 20, 1981, robbers connected with the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground struck a Brinks armored car while it sat outside a bank near Nyack, N.Y. One guard was killed, another wounded. Two police officers were later killed at a roadblock when robbers jumped from the back of a U-Haul truck, firing automatic rifles.

Susan Rosenberg, a 1970s leftist radical, was indicted as an accessory to the robbery, but remained free until she was arrested in New Jersey in 1984 on charges of possessing 740 pounds of explosives. She was sentenced to 58 years in prison, but the charges in the Brinks case were dropped.

Then in 2001, just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton granted her clemency, and she was released from prison. Now a prisoner-rights activist and writer, Ms. Rosenberg was hired in the fall by the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture to teach a one-month course on writing memoirs at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.

That appointment created a public-relations mess for Hamilton, drawing protests from professors and negative editorials in newspapers. Ms. Rosenberg then backed out, citing "the atmosphere of such organized right-wing intimidation from a small group of students and faculty."

The Rosenberg debacle raised the antennae of Theodore Eismeier, a government professor at Hamilton. So when the Kirkland Project sent a message on December 14 highlighting its spring schedule, which included a February 3 speech by Mr. Churchill on prison issues, he checked out the Colorado professor.

After a little Internet searching, Mr. Eismeier discovered "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," the essay in which Mr. Churchill made his now-infamous "little Eichmanns" comment. Mr. Eismeier says he immediately sent the essay and "other troubling writings" to college administrators, urging them to cancel the event.

The storm clouds were gathering....